Environment & Energy Report

Public Opinion Shifts Some GOP Views on Climate Change

Feb. 26, 2019, 11:15 AM

Some congressional Republicans are singing a different tune on climate change.

A decade ago, most GOP lawmakers responded to efforts to cap greenhouse gas emissions with skepticism. Carbon dioxide was innocuous, even helpful, to the environment, they argued.

“I’m going to continue to reject putting the word carbon and pollution together,” Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said at a January 2010 House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

This time around, the response from the Republican Party is different. The introduction of a Green New Deal resolution in a Democratic House of Representatives has sparked the biggest discussion on climate since the 2009 bill to establish a nationwide carbon emissions trading system.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will soon announce the members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The panel was revived this Congress to provide a springboard for ideas to address climate change. Democrats have already announced their members.

Engaging the Public

Shimkus, who is now ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee’s panel on environment and climate change, has accepted the mainstream view that human activity, including burning fossil fuels, is contributing to climate change.

“We’re kind of defaulting on the fact that the public already is convinced that we play some part,” Shimkus told Bloomberg Environment. “So then the question is, how do you engage in doing something positive to affect this, without harming the economy and growth and placing big financial burden on the people who can afford it the least?”

To be sure, Republican skeptics remain on Capitol Hill. The best-known is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who in 2015 infamously brought a snowball into the Senate chamber to use as a prop to argue that scientists and climate advocates were exaggerating global warming.

Asked if he saw a decline in skepticism and more of a focus on solutions to accelerating climate change, Inhofe said, “Nothing has really changed on that.”

Southern, Xcel, Duke, Set Ambitious Goals

Shimkus joined Energy and Commerce ranking member Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in writing an op-ed this month offering to try curbing catastrophic climate change using free-market principles, rather than regulations or taxes.

They promoted carbon capture and storage, hydropower, nuclear energy, energy storage, and business investments in renewable technology.

The evolution is in contrast to President Donald Trump’s White House. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on mainstream climate science, and officials are weighing a plan to set up a panel led by skeptic William Happer to question conclusions finding climate change impacts could exacerbate national security concerns.

Republicans’ shift on climate change policy is driven by several factors, said Jeremy Harrell, managing director of policy for ClearPath, a conservative clean energy group.

“In general, the debate on this issue shifted because the data is clear,” he said.

Communities are feeling the impact of climate change, and industry is taking the issue seriously. Electric utilities such as Southern Co., Xcel Energy, and Duke Energy have all set ambitious mid-century decarbonization goals.

Climate change is also becoming more of a political issue. Voters in both parties want lawmakers to embrace a forward-leaning clean energy future for the country, Harrell said.

With Democrats in control of the House, Republican lawmakers know they will have to talk about climate change more, Harrell said. Many House committees—including Energy and Commerce, Science, and Natural Resources—already have held at least one major hearing on climate change. The House Appropriations and Transportation committees will hold climate hearings Feb. 26.

Taking the Climate Crisis Seriously

In addition, the party caucus’ makeup is different, Shimkus said.

California’s Dana Rohrabacher and Texas’ Joe Barton and Lamar Smith—House Republicans who vigorously questioned that climate change posed a threat to the country— all left Congress this year.

Republican lawmakers can “read the polls as well as anyone else,” said John Bowman, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior director of federal affairs. “They clearly see that for the first time maybe in our lifetime the American public is starting to take the climate crisis seriously and demand some action.”

But Bowman said he still wants to see Republican leaders such as Walden, Upton, and Shimkus offer some legislation to back up their calls for bipartisan climate and clean energy solutions or sign onto Democratic bills addressing the issue.

“They’re going to have an opportunity,” Bowman said. “There will be no shortage of bills that will have positive climate impacts, but will they get on any of those bills?”

Carbon Capture Bill Hearing This Week

Bipartisan movement is occurring this Congress for one technology to reduce carbon emissions.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bipartisan legislation to spur the development of carbon capture technology, which catches emissions from smokestacks to either store it underground or reuse it for industrial purposes.

The Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (USE IT) Act (S.383, H.R.1166) would authorize millions of dollars toward the research and development of commercial carbon dioxide use.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation Feb. 27.

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) is an original co-sponsor of the House bill with Democratic Reps. Scott Peters (Calif.), Cheri Bustos (Ill.), and Marc Veasey (Texas). He remains skeptical of some of the climate models that show the worrisome impact of greenhouse gases on climate, and believes that most carbon is emmitted from foreign countries.

But he doesn’t deny the progression of a warmer planet, rising seas and wild weather.

“The realization is it’s happening. so how are we going to deal with the results? Or how are we going to stop it or slow it down?” McKinley said. “We could stop all the fossil fuel use in America, we could, and Miami and Baltimore and New York would still flood with high waters.”

—With assistance from Dean Scott.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bloombergenvironment.com; Abby Smith in Washington at asmith@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com

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